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Toronto: Errol Morris on Facing Off Against Donald Rumsfeld in 'Unknown Known' (Q&A)

Errol Morris - P 2012
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Errol Morris

The documentary filmmaker tells THR why he tackled a film about the former defense secretary and how he garnered Rumsfeld's participation.

In his Oscar-winning 2003 documentary The Fog of War, Errol Morris got former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to reflect on the mistakes made during the Vietnam War. In his new doc, The Unknown Known, Morris, 65, who lives in Cambridge, Mass., with his wife, art historian Julia Sheehan, and their two French bulldogs, tackles another controversial defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. But the results this time, reflecting Rumsfeld’s unapologetic defense of his actions, are quite different.

Why a film about Donald Rumsfeld?

I won’t call it an epiphany, but reading Rumsfeld’s book, Known and Unknown, and then going to a website that he had constructed around the book, I realized there was the possibility of doing something like The Fog of War. It was an opportunity to do a movie with one person, which interests me for many reasons, and the “snowflakes” -- the endless archive of memos that he had created since the beginning of his four terms as a congressman from Illinois through his service during the Bush administration as the secretary of defense. I thought if he could read these memos, contextualize them and explain them, then something interesting would happen.

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How did you approach him?

I have published two books through Penguin, so I called Anne Godoff, who runs Penguin Press, since Rumsfeld’s book had been published by one of Penguin’s imprints, and that led to Bob Barnett, who’s the mover and shaker lawyer who represents many of these books. Bob said, “There’s no way he’s ever going to talk to you.” But I sent a letter and a copy of The Fog of War to Rumsfeld’s office in Washington. And he responded immediately.

What was your first meeting like?

Rumsfeld invited me to listen to him being interviewed by several journalists. I listened to the questions being asked by the various journalists and his responses. It was interesting because all the journalists asked the same questions, and he gave the same responses. I thought to myself, did I want to see the same thing all over again? I gave him a proposal. I said, “I’d like you to give me two days of your time. I would interview you for as many hours each day as you choose -- two, three, four hours. I will edit the material, and I will show it to you.”

You eventually interviewed him for 33 hours.

Over 11 separate days, four separate trips to Boston. We filmed in a studio in Allston over the course of a little bit more than a year.

And you had him read his memos as part of the interview?

Yes, the memos are memos that he shared with us. I don’t believe they were ever available before we started talking with him. I sometimes describe it as a kind of history from the inside out rather than the other way around. What was so fascinating and still is fascinating about the memos is that they came from [various] periods, whether it was the Ford Administration or his role as an ambassador-at-large in the Middle East during the Reagan Administration and during his tenure as secretary of defense for George W. Bush. They also reflect how he wants other people to see him. They are complex. It gives some kind of insight into what he was thinking, how he wanted to present himself to others, how he wanted to present himself to history. I think there are a lot of complicated things going on that fascinated me and still fascinates me. For a lot of people, when you make a movie, you’re supposed to come away with definite answers about things. I’m not sure that is my M.O. In fact, I’m pretty sure it is not.

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He seems strangely obsessed with the definition of words.

I’ll tell you how I interpret it. When we think of words and the definition of words, I immediately think of George Orwell because he wrote so extensively about it. Orwell was obsessed with language and how language could be used to manipulate people. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. It’s something stranger. Words become for Rumsfeld his own way to regain control over reality and history as he feels it slipping away. I’m not sure I’m even characterizing it correctly either, but there’s something strange and powerful about it. If somehow he gets the right word or the right definition of words, everything will be OK. America will win the war in Iraq, the insurgents will vanish. It’s all a problem of vocabulary.

You showed him the interviews as you went along. Did he ask for changes?

I told him he could not have any control over the editing of material because if I gave him control, no one would ever take this movie seriously, and he agreed. I said I would not interview any other people, which I had no problem doing because that was the intention from the outset. The moment you make a movie with 10 or 12 people talking about Donald Rumsfeld, it becomes a movie from the outside in. I really, really wanted to do something different. He did send me notes. I had snowflakes, my own set of snowflakes from Donald Rumsfeld, criticizing things, asking me to change things. I would write memos back to him, explaining why I had done what I had done, why I couldn’t change certain things.

In The Fog of War, McNamara seemed haunted by Vietnam. Rumsfeld, on the other hand, doesn’t admit to any self-doubt, which has troubled some viewers of the film.

It was one of the strangest and most interesting and puzzling interviews I’ve ever done. I often think my job description is that I’m required to try to capture something of the complexity of the individual I am talking to and the complexity of the world that they were dealing with. If I’m able to do that, for me the movie is a success.